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Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company that Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America's Most Decorated Green Beret

Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company that Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America's Most Decorated Green Beret

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Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company that Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America's Most Decorated Green Beret

5/5 (1 évaluation)
741 pages
17 heures
Sep 15, 2018


Uncommon Valor is a look into the formation and operation of an advanced Special Forces recon company during the Vietnam War. Code-named the Studies and Observations Group, SOG was the most covert U.S. military unit in its time and contained only volunteers from such elite units as the Army’s Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Air Force Air Commandos. SOG warriors operated in small teams, going behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, tasked with performing special reconnaissance, sabotaging North Vietnamese Army ammunition, attempting to rescue downed U.S. pilots and other black ops missions. During that time, Forward Operating Base-2’s (FOB-2's) recon company became the most highly decorated unit of the Vietnam War, with five of its men earning the Medal of Honor and eight earning the Distinguished Service Cross-America's second highest military award for valor. Purple Hearts were earned by SOG veterans at a pace unparalleled in American wars of the twentieth century, with casualties at times exceeding 100 percent. One, Bob Howard, was wounded on fourteen different occasions, received eight Purple Hearts, was written up after three different missions for the Medal of Honor, and emerged from Vietnam as the most highly decorated soldier since World War II's Audie Murphy.
Sep 15, 2018

À propos de l'auteur

Stephen L. Moore, a sixth-generation Texan, graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University. He is the author of multiple books on World War II and Texas history, including the critically acclaimed Eighteen Minutes: The Battle of San Jacinto and the Texas Independence Campaign; the four-volume Savage Frontier series on the early Texas Rangers and Texas Indian Wars; and Taming Texas, a biography of his great-great-great-grandfather William T. Sadler, who was one of the first Texas Ranger captains in the 1830s. Steve lives north of Dallas in Lantana, Texas, with his wife, Cindy, and their three children.

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Uncommon Valor - Stephen L. Moore

Naval Institute Press

291 Wood Road

Annapolis, MD 21402

© 2018 by Stephen L. Moore

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

978-1-68247-312-2 (eBook)

Print editions meet the requirements of ANSI/NISO z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).


First printing



1. The Kontum Thirty-Three

2. Spike Teams and Hatchet Force

3. The Montagnard Camp and Old Blue

4. Prisoner Snatching and Wiretaps

5. Code Name Bright Light

6. Heavy Drop

7. Daniel Boone and Bob Howard

8. Into the Hornet’s Nest

9. They Won’t Take Us Alive

10. New Faces at FOB-2

11. The Big One

12. Enter the Gladiator

13. The Wolfkeil Bright Light

14. Double Take

15. Close Shaves

16. SLAM VII: Shot All to Hell

17. Howard’s Miracle Mission

18. No Longer a Cherry

19. In the Frying Pan

20. Casualties of the Fall

21. Vietnamese Alamo

Epilogue: A Collection of Heroes



Glossary of Terms





Map artwork courtesy of Joe Parnar


Sergeant First Class Bob Howard lay unconscious as hellacious volumes of semi- and full-automatic weapons fire made confetti of the dense green jungle foliage all around his crumpled body.

It was December 30, 1968, and Howard’s thirty-three-man recon platoon was being shredded by two companies of North Vietnamese infantrymen. Near him lay his platoon commander, a young first lieutenant whose body had been ripped by bullets and grenade fragments. Four South Vietnamese members of Howard’s platoon had also been cut down—one was already dead and the other three were writhing in agony.

Howard was raised in near-poverty by his grandmother in Opelika, Alabama; he was now a specimen of physical fitness—a powerfully built six-footer with a square jaw and a fierce sense of patriotism. A quiet, unassuming character, he was considered the epitome of bravery in combat. He had already been written up for the Medal of Honor twice, only to have the citations downgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross and a Silver Star.

But now the fierce warrior was in agony, with shrapnel wounds to his hands, groin, and lower legs. Blown backward by the force of a grenade, Howard fought to regain consciousness and struggled to see through the blood gushing from an ugly head wound. As his senses slowly returned, he detected the most vile stench—the scent of burning human flesh. He pulled himself upright and spotted a North Vietnamese soldier brandishing a flamethrower. The enemy infantryman was moving about the kill zone, roasting the bodies of Howard’s wounded platoonmates with liquid fire.

The grisly massacre was playing out in Cambodia, far from any friendly troops in an area where the American government denied having any military presence. Bob Howard knew there would be no cavalry racing to his rescue. Most of the Green Beret’s web gear had been ripped away and his automatic weapon was useless, blown all to hell by the enemy grenade. To the left of the soldier with the flamethrower, Howard spied his gravely wounded lieutenant screaming in agony. He fumbled to retrieve an M33 hand grenade strapped to his left side and struggled to remove the pin with fingers that had been slashed by red-hot shrapnel.

As he did so, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldier spotted him and turned his flamethrower in Howard’s direction. In the midst of rising smoke, rattling gunfire, and the screams of dying men, Howard and his opponent made direct eye contact. The American felt his enemy was experiencing a smug sense of satisfaction knowing he was about to burn a Green Beret to death.

Howard gripped his hand grenade as final thoughts rushed through his head: I’m about to be burnt up or blown up, but I’m at least going to take this guy out with me.¹

Sergeant Howard was stationed at Special Forces Forward Operating Base No. 2 (FOB-2), which was established in May 1966 near Kontum in the Central Highlands region of South Vietnam. This advanced base served as the operations center for a recon company of an elite U.S. military unit that fell under the auspices of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). The unit, code-named the Studies and Observations Group (SOG), was composed strictly of volunteers—Army Green Berets, a handful of Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land), Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) field agents, and indigenous personnel.

SOG reported directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and the White House, running black ops (top secret operations)—so classified that the very existence of the covert unit was denied by the U.S. government. SOG men took on the most dangerous assignments, working behind enemy lines to penetrate NVA facilities in Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam along the heavily defended Ho Chi Minh Trail. MACV organized SOG in 1964 to conduct strategic reconnaissance missions, capture enemy soldiers for intelligence, identify targets for bombing missions, conduct psychological missions (such as sabotaging enemy ammunition), and even to attempt the rescue of American prisoners of war (POW). SOG’s recon men were also responsible for saving the lives of downed pilots during so-called Bright Light missions conducted deep behind enemy lines.

SOG’s Green Berets operated in small recon teams of generally two or three Americans with three or more indigenous soldiers. The SOG teams were often inserted behind enemy lines by helicopter, with the American soldiers decked out in sterile uniforms (stripped of insignia) and carrying foreign weapons. If killed or captured, their existence in their area of operations (AO) would be denied by the U.S. government. In 1969, MACV-SOG documented its ratio of NVA soldiers killed to each lost Green Beret at 150 to 1—the highest documented kill ratio of any American unit in the war.

In many cases, the SOG teams went in under enemy fire and were pursued by NVA trackers from the moment they inserted into the jungle. They remained on the ground for days or even more than a week at a time with meager rations and only the ammunition each man could carry, often engaging platoon- to division-sized enemy forces until the surviving members could be extracted by helicopter. Sometimes entire teams were wiped out.

According to Major John Plaster, author of the first detailed history of SOG, the recon company at FOB-2 Kontum was the Vietnam War’s most highly decorated unit, with five Medal of Honor (MOH) recipients. These five sky blue ribbons were awarded between February 1967 and January 1970. Within that same stretch, FOB-2 recon men also received eight Distinguished Service Crosses (DSC)—the nation’s second-highest award for valor—and innumerable other awards. Purple Hearts were awarded by the unit at a pace unparalleled in American wars of the twentieth century, with team casualties sometimes reaching 100 percent. Oftentimes, Special Forces (SF) troopers declined the submission of paperwork for a Purple Heart or simply did not report minor shrapnel wounds—as far as they were concerned, it was all in a day’s work.

It would be impossible to relate all of the covert missions run by the Kontum recon company in a book of this length. Many of the reports and documents pertaining to these missions were destroyed to maintain the secrecy of SOG. Reconstructing the story of how FOB-2 Kontum took shape was made possible largely through the knowledge of the original thirty-three Green Berets who began running operations from the base. These same men added improvements to the compound. The FOB slowly increased in size, incorporating more recon teams (RTs) and a reaction battalion until the number of American servicemen stationed there had doubled.

This small base would slowly grow in strength during its first two years of operation, and the records it would amass for the numbers of troops involved are inspiring. In the official language of the Medal of Honor citation, each of the five SOG recipients received the nation’s highest award for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while tending to the welfare of wounded comrades.² Some of these five perished in the course of the mission for which they were later honored. Bob Howard was wounded on fourteen occasions, received eight Purple Hearts, and emerged from Vietnam as the most highly decorated soldier since World War II’s Audie Murphy.

However, this is not only the story of five MOH men, but also one about the eight Kontum-based DSC recipients and of dozens of other warriors who were acknowledged with other awards. In some cases, the most valiant received no formal recognition at all, either due to the eccentricities of the awards board process or the fact that there were often no surviving witnesses to the heroic actions of the man in question. The SOG warriors were supported by a wide variety of aviators flying prop-driven assault planes, single-engine Cessnas, fast-moving jets, and highly vulnerable choppers—all manned by personnel tasked with providing aerial cover, radio relay support, and life-saving extractions that often took heavy tolls.

Relating the true tale of Kontum’s FOB-2 recon company is possible thanks to the participation of many. Because of the highly classified nature of SOG’s existence, many of the missions remained unknown to the American public for decades after the close of hostilities in Vietnam. The author reviewed surviving military documents that have since been declassified but his primary sources were the veterans themselves—dozens of former Green Berets, airmen, and even a retired general who served two years as chief of SOG during Vietnam. They are the men who made the covert actions of SOG so highly successful. Their sacrifices were only sometimes later acknowledged with a military award, but their conduct under fire speaks volumes.

They were an uncommon bunch who displayed uncommon valor.

Chapter One


Steve Goth suppressed an excited smile as he glanced over at Al Keller. He thought to himself: This is it! ¹

The two had known each other long enough that even such quick eye contact said it all. After long months of training and preparation, the close friends had finally reached the pinnacle of their short military careers—the chance to join a top secret Special Forces team so covert even its name was unknown to most.

It was the first of May 1966, and the room in which they were sitting was far removed from any bustling military compound where one might expect a clandestine force to be recruiting new members. Instead, they were on the second floor of a meager civilian villa in Da Nang that the U.S. government procured to serve as a safe house. The city was also the home of a major air base used by both the South Vietnamese and American militaries. The air inside the wood-floored structure was thick and muggy, same as it was outside.

Goth and Keller sat in silence, wearing the same standard-issue green fatigues that adorned the dozens of other Green Berets packed into rows alongside them. Most of the soldiers had arrived in Saigon just days before, where they had gone through in-country processing with the 5th Special Forces Group (SFG). There, Goth had learned about the potential new top secret assignment from Jim Hetrick, another buddy he and Keller had known since their training days.

The tension was broken only by the sharp delivery of a powerfully built Special Forces officer as he briefed his audience on their current options. He was a blooded lieutenant colonel—commonly referred to as a light colonel or a light bird in military slang. But there was no disrespect shown to Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Cherokee Call as he outlined the daunting proposition facing his potential recruits.² A Hoosier with a serious demeanor, Call was selected to serve as a senior commander within the Army’s most elite SF organization and oversee all operations at the Da Nang SF command and control headquarters, known as the C&C. The clandestine force he was to command was unknown to the men assembled before him. Some had heard rumors of its existence. Others had even heard its abbreviated name whispered: SOG.

Call did not utter the acronym but instead explained he was recruiting volunteers needed to staff two forward operating bases for the purpose of running recon missions into enemy territory. Special Forces personnel to be considered for the assignments were required to possess at least two years of service, multiple levels of specialized training, and a rank of at least specialist fourth class or corporal (E-4 pay grade).

Steve Goth and Al Keller, both of whom ranked as specialist fourth class, were the youngest Green Berets present. Goth, twenty-one, had enlisted in the Army in August 1964 after leaving college. The majority of his time had since been spent in one form of training or another. Goth and Keller met in jump school and then went through Special Forces Training Group (SFTG) together. After graduation, Steve went to the 3rd Group and Al went to the 7th Group, but both remained stationed at Fort Bragg.

The two had gotten to know each other well during that time. Keller learned that Goth was an Army brat born in New Jersey who had spent many years being raised in Europe during his father’s tours of duty. At twenty, Keller was the youngest man in the room. He had grown up around Washington, DC, the son of parents who worked for the telephone company. Keller attended Hardin-Simmons College in Abilene, Texas. When his first true love didn’t pan out, he joined the Army.

Some of the Green Berets seated near Keller and Goth learned of the unique assignment while still Stateside. Sergeant First Class Jim Stewart first heard of a list being quietly compiled by senior noncommissioned officers (NCOs) in the 3rd, 6th, and 7th Groups. Those who volunteered for the top secret assignment in Vietnam received no further information until they arrived in-country. Stewart penned his name to the list without hesitation. Access to the list was closed before some of the guys even knew it was being circulated, he recalled.³ Stewart and others were quickly gathered in San Francisco, placed on a Boeing 707 airliner bound for Saigon via Hawaii, and in-processed by the 5th Group headquarters in Nha Trang before being flown to Da Nang for their secret assignment briefing.

Among the Green Berets whisked from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Nha Trang in the previous week were a few with more experience. Twenty-eight-year-old Sergeant First Class Morris Mo Worley found the whole Vietnam special project to be intriguing. We asked a lot of questions and got no answers, said Worley, who jumped at the chance nonetheless. He and his father did not see eye to eye, so Worley finished his senior year of high school living at the local Louisville, Kentucky, YMCA while working at a duplicating company in the afternoons to make ends meet. Upon joining the Army in 1956, he was open to new adventure.

Worley’s initial service was with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, which found him stationed in Germany off and on for the better part of five years. During the early 1960s, Worley also saw service in Korea’s demilitarized zone and later back at Fort Knox as a drill instructor. He attended Airborne School in October 1964, and completed his Special Forces training in June 1965. Worley had more military experience than many of his fellow soldiers assembled at the Da Nang briefing, but he was equally green when it came to combat.

Most of your operations will be conducted across the fence, Lieutenant Colonel Call explained. This means you will be operating behind enemy lines.

He further detailed that each man would go in sterile, meaning that they would wear no uniform and carry no weapon or accoutrements that could in any way identify them as being part of the U.S. military. Recon patrols would include a combination of Green Berets and indigenous troops called Nungs, ethnic Chinese who had immigrated to Vietnam from China’s Kwangsi Province. The Nungs had proven their fighting skills during the French Indochina War more than a decade prior. In some cases, the team might also include an officer of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to assist with their mission.

Recon patrols could expect clashes in enemy-held territory with NVA soldiers or their allies, fighters of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLF), who were referred to by American soldiers as Vietcong or VC. In the event that anyone was killed or captured while conducting covert missions across the fence, the U.S. government would deny any knowledge of their activity. Their families would simply be notified that they were missing in action (MIA).

Such work was exactly why Steve Goth had gotten into Special Forces in the first place. His mind flashed back to the action-packed James Bond film Goldfinger, which he had seen at the base theater the previous year. Ian Fleming’s fictional British secret agent thriller had first hit American theaters in 1962, with Sean Connery starring as agent 007. By early 1966, American audiences had already been captivated by four James Bond films. Goldfinger, the third Bond film, had quickly become the highest-grossing movie of its time, surpassing $124 million worldwide.

Goth was still reliving James Bond action scenes as he considered the potential dangers he might face behind enemy lines. But the romance came to an end as he noted the briefing officer turn the meeting over to poker-faced men dressed in black suits with thin black ties. Obviously CIA guys, thought Goth.

One of the black suits reminded the volunteer group that everyone present had special clearance to even hear the secret details they had heard so far and before proceeding, each man had to make the choice whether this special assignment was something he was fully prepared to accept.

Those who wish to move forward at this point will be committed for one full year, he said. Anyone who wants to decline the opportunity can now simply raise your hand. You will be taken to another room for debriefing, and then will simply be sent back to 5th Group for a new duty assignment. No questions asked.

Jim Stewart glanced nervously around the room. No hands went up, but he felt if anyone had raised their arm to opt out, others would have followed suit. After a quiet moment, the briefing officers continued their presentation.

I wanna tell you one other thing, Lieutenant Colonel Call added. Take a look to your left and then take a look to your right. One of those two men beside you will be dead at this time next year. The officer let that fact soak in for a moment before continuing. All right, let’s take a break. Go downstairs, grab a Coke or a cigarette. Then, if you’re still willing to stay with the unit, come on back up after the break.

Goth and Keller shuffled downstairs to talk during the short recess. Well, if Steve will do it, I’ll do it, Keller thought. Goth was playing out the same scenario in his mind. He was prepared to move forward with the new Special Forces assignment since his former jump school buddy also seemed willing. Remembering the colonel’s warning, a dark thought—unspoken to his pal—reverberated in Goth’s head: Poor ol’ Al is going to be dead next year.

The smoke break was short. Goth noted only one man, a Green Beret who had two young children, who declined to return to the briefing. Once everyone was reassembled back upstairs, the colonel resumed his briefing. His new volunteers were to be assigned to one of two forward operating bases: either the one at Kham Duc, located just ten miles from the Laotian border and sixty miles southwest of Da Nang, or a new FOB to be located in the Central Highlands near the town of Kontum.

At the conclusion of the meeting, a list was posted. Roughly half of the group were slated for service at the Kham Duc FOB. The remainder had their names written in for duty at the Kontum forward operating base designated as FOB-2. Jim Stewart scanned down the two lists and saw that two of his closest buddies, Harry Whalen and John Ranger Roy, were on the Kham Duc list.

He then ran his finger down the alphabetized names on the Kontum list: Billy Joe Anthony, Louis Austria, Jan Borek, Ronald Bowling, John Couch, Alex Fontes, Robert Franke, Stephen Goth, Jim Hetrick, Richard Jenkins, Alan Keller, Charles Kerns, Jerry Lee, James Lively, and Louis Smith. He hurriedly skimmed toward the bottom of the list: Charles Vessels, Morris Worley. Running his finger back up the sheet, he finally spotted his own name: Jimmie Lee Stewart.

Many of these men were complete strangers to each other, but the Green Berets would soon become very well acquainted. The two groups of new recon recruits were ordered to gather their gear and report to the airstrip, where a C-130 Hercules transport was waiting. Located on the eastern coast of the Republic of Vietnam, Da Nang had become the world’s busiest airport by 1966. The C-130 was scarcely airborne before the pilot was landing at the FOB at Kham Duc. When we landed at Kham Duc and I saw that camp, I was certainly happy that I had been assigned to Kontum—even though I hadn’t seen it yet, said Stewart. Whoever located the camp at Kham Duc certainly didn’t consider defending it.

From Kham Duc, the next flight was only seventy-five miles south to Kontum, where the C-130 landed on the concrete strip of the bustling civilian airport. The Green Berets grabbed their gear and clambered onto a pair of three-quarter-ton trucks for the short ride to their new base south of town. Steve Goth glanced about at Kontum, a small French colonial rubber plantation town nestled in the Annamite Mountains of the Central Highlands region. Its simple streets were sprinkled with white stucco, red tile-roofed buildings.

As their trucks approached the fence of a modest, gated compound, Goth was enjoying the moment. The sun is shining and this looks like the start of a great adventure, he mused. The truck jerked to a halt within the old base and the Da Nang transferees grabbed their personal effects and disembarked. They found that they were the first large contingent of permanently assigned men to arrive at FOB-2. They had been preceded by only a handful of other SF guys who had been similarly assigned from other bases. All told, the new Special Forces base would initially comprise fewer than three dozen men, who were soon calling themselves the original Kontum thirty-three.

Leonard Tilley, a staff sergeant with nearly a dozen years in the Army to his credit, was one of the thirty-three who arrived separately from the big Da Nang bunch. A country boy from Arizona raised on hunting and fishing, Tilley had been with the 3rd Group in HALO (high altitude, low opening) training at Fort Bragg when he signed on for the special assignment. Despite his rank over some of the FOB-2 newbies, he was equally uncertain about the nature of his new assignment.

Tilley listened as a sergeant checked their names off a clipboard and reminded each man of the new radio code name he would use while on recon duty: prince. Billy Anthony announced he was swimmer, Jan Borek said he was crossbow, and so on. Tilley knew that he was entering an entirely new level of security when he and the others were ordered to remove all the insignia from the uniforms they wore on base: Special Forces patches, name tapes, rank chevrons, and qualification badges—all had to come off.

All of their cross-border gear—from uniforms to rucksacks and web gear—was exchanged for items of Asian origin. The intel passed along in their Da Nang briefing was repeated. Should a team be captured, its members were to state that they had mistakenly crossed into Laos while searching for a downed aircraft near the border. In other words, they would be crossing into enemy territory on missions that were strictly denied by the United States. The prospect of now being a secret agent like James Bond was far removed from Tilley’s mind at the moment.

All he could think was, Oh shit!

Chapter Two


Although he tried to suppress his emotions, forty-four-year-old Colonel John Kirk Jack Singlaub was disappointed when he was handed command of a relatively new operation known as MACV-SOG. Having served in special ops in both World War II and Korea, he was hoping for a conventional command when his impending assignment to Vietnam was made known to him in the fall of 1965. ¹

His superiors considered Colonel Singlaub to be the perfect fit for the cloak-and-dagger job soon to be vacated by Colonel Donald Blackburn of MACV. Blackburn was the legendary commander of the World War II guerrilla network known as Blackburn’s Headhunters, which had been highly successful in disrupting the Japanese military in the Philippines. In May 1965, Blackburn assumed command of the joint unconventional warfare task force known as SOG. The Joint Chiefs created SOG in January 1964 to conduct operations in North Vietnam under direction of the unit’s first leader, Colonel Clyde Russell, and his superiors in the Pentagon.

SOG was primarily composed of U.S. Army Special Forces personnel, but also included some Navy SEALs, Air Force personnel, CIA agents, and elements of the Marine Force Reconnaissance units. The United States had committed nearly two hundred thousand troops to South Vietnam by the end of 1965, but the war with North Vietnam was continuing to escalate. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara approved covert attacks on North Vietnam during 1963, and by early 1964 Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Cherokee Call had been assigned as one of the leaders of Operational Plan (OP) 34A, the highly classified U.S. unconventional warfare program that developed into SOG.

Ray Call was commissioned in Germany during World War II and served in the infantry during the Korean conflict. In 1960, he took a military training team from the 77th Special Forces to Vietnam to set up one of three training teams of ARVN rangers. The Vietnamese were not all that enthused about it so they sent me every misfit that they had in their roster, Call said. He immediately put the Vietnamese soldiers through a tough physical fitness regimen until he had only 19 worthwhile men remaining of the 110 he had been first assigned.²

President Lyndon Johnson used an attack on the destroyer USS Maddox (DD-731) in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 to urge Congress to dramatically escalate the Vietnam War with more U.S. involvement. Lieutenant Colonel Call soon found more U.S. Special Forces collaboration in 1965 with the ARVN rangers he had trained, and he boldly issued plans for MACV-SOG OP-35. It called for direct action and long-range reconnaissance patrols into North Vietnamese territories by American-led recon elements to verify the existence of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to disrupt the tremendous amount of supplies moving along the Trail. The unpaved Laotian infiltration network had been created by the North Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Committee in April 1959, where the Truong Son Route (the name used by the NVA) wound covertly through mountains and jungles. During its height of use, the Trail would carry more than ten thousand camouflaged trucks along two thousand miles of hidden roads, protected by antiaircraft (AA) guns and tens of thousands of support troops.³

Call’s OP-35 moved from his boss, Don Blackburn, on to General William Westmoreland, the MACV commander in charge of all U.S. forces deployed in South Vietnam. The chain of command for approvals continued all the way to Washington. SOG was given more flexibility to expand operations into Laos, an operation that was given the code name Shining Brass. These efforts were headed by Blackburn’s chosen leader, Colonel Arthur David Bull Simons, a no-nonsense veteran of World War II’s 6th Ranger battalion who had iron gray hair and a physique that fit his nickname. Simons began training volunteers from the 1st Special Forces Group on Okinawa in the summer of 1965 and then secretly moved the first sixteen of them into Vietnam for deployment.

Don Blackburn’s MACV-SOG operated out of Saigon, with its C&C headquarters at Da Nang Air Base on the eastern coast of Vietnam. In-country training was conducted near Saigon at the ARVN airborne training center (Camp Quyet Thang) located at Long Thanh, a well-guarded barbed wire compound with an asphalt strip big enough to accommodate C-130 transport planes. Training for U.S. personnel assigned to recon teams was conducted at Kham Duc, and SOG’s Shining Brass operations into Laos commenced in late September 1965.

By that time, William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Laos, had eased the restrictions slightly for recon teams inserting into Laotian territories. Instead of walking into just two small areas of the country, he authorized SOG teams to be inserted as deep as twelve miles across the entire two-hundred-mile border that separated Laos from South Vietnam. Don Blackburn’s SOG teams were running regular Shining Brass missions to disrupt Communist efforts in Laos by the time he recommended Jack Singlaub to be his successor as chief SOG in April 1966.

Colonel Singlaub’s experience fit the job requirements to a tee. In October 1943, when the twenty-two-year-old UCLA graduate and lieutenant was serving as an airborne infantry patrol leader, he was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to become a member of Operation Jedburgh, a joint clandestine operation involving American, British, French, Dutch, and Belgian special operatives. In August 1944, Singlaub parachuted behind German lines to work with the Free French Resistance fighters after the D-Day invasion.

Following World War II, he headed CIA operations in Manchuria during the Chinese Communist revolution, helped train Army Ranger companies for service in the Korean War, and commanded clandestine operations and an infantry battalion in Korea. Singlaub was a born fighter, ready to command a front-line brigade when he was assigned to Vietnam. His disappointment in being ordered to take over SOG was that it was an unconventional warfare, sabotage, and covert-action organization of considerably smaller size. But orders were orders, and Colonel Singlaub’s orders had originated from General Westmoreland, who had specifically requested him as the new MACV-SOG commander.

His duties thus cemented, Singlaub immediately decided what his command style must be. Hard-charging Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and Air Commandos would respect a chief SOG who could lead by example versus pushing mimeographed orders from a distant headquarters. Jack Singlaub would do just that, making himself visibly available to his front-line SOG men.

Jack Singlaub, who had served in the OSS during World War II, was Chief SOG from April 1966 into early 1968. U.S. Army

He arrived in Saigon in April 1966, taking up residence with his deputy commander in a nearby villa in a quiet neighborhood. By all appearances, his duty was that of a staff colonel conducting routine studies on U.S. military operations. But his headquarters was in a guarded compound with air-conditioned operations and intelligence center vaults that closely guarded the identities of his agents. The locations of Singlaub’s SOG teams were never marked on permanent maps, but instead on single-copy transparent overlays. As chief SOG, he reported directly to the Pentagon but kept General Westmoreland fully briefed on all of his operations.

Singlaub’s mission was to covertly take the war directly to the enemy’s home and into his sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. His cross-border recon teams fell under the OP-35 group led by Colonel Bull Simons—a founding member of the Green Berets. During the Korean War, Simons had been the only man able to outshoot the new chief SOG on the pistol range. He had a vocabulary that would make a drill sergeant blush, said Singlaub.

MACV-SOG’s new commander made trips around the country to meet his local commanders and inspect their units. During one of his observation flights in a command and control Bell UH-1 Iroquois (commonly known by the GIs as the Huey), Singlaub’s pilot banked his chopper low enough over entrenched Vietcong positions that machine-gun fire clanged off the bottom of the helicopter. He was quick to expand the number of his cross-border teams, their staging areas, and forward operating bases, including the new facility coming together at Kontum. By mid-1966, Singlaub, Bull Simons, and Ray Call were authorized to increase their SOG recon teams to better explore their expanded operational area, with an authorization to up their five original teams to twenty teams.

Jack Singlaub soon became the biggest asset to the men running recon from the SOG bases, and the men of the new FOB-2 would grow to respect him immensely.

Mo Worley spent his first weeks at Kontum wondering when and if he would ever see action; his primary weapons were now a hammer, nails, and a saw. The site of his labor was just south of Kontum City, located only about forty miles southeast of the tri-border area where Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam meet. He and the other new FOB-2 volunteers had been assigned to improve an older fortified camp first opened in early 1966 when the nearby Special Forces launch site at Dak To proved to be too small for expansion. The base at Kontum had been used by French forces as an ARVN truck compound during the French Indochina War. Split in two by Highway 14 south of Kontum City, the base had only a few sheds and some older, run-down buildings when SOG opted to convert it into FOB-2. There were no true barracks and no proper latrines. Rotting punji sticks—sharpened bamboo stakes protruding upward from the earth to deter enemy ambushes—were still scattered about the compound, hazardous remnants French troops had left in place in 1954 at the end of the First Indochina War.¹⁰

An aerial view of Forward Operating Base 2 (FOB-2) at Kontum. The former ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) truck park was divided in half by Highway 14. Joe Parnar

Many of the original thirty-three Kontum men were tasked with making quick improvements to the place. Sergeant First Class Fred Huckleberry Lewis was an engineer already at the base working on things when the newbies arrived. An easy-going country boy who often sported an old straw hat above his freckled face, Lewis could easily have played the part of the Mark Twain character for whom he was nicknamed.¹¹

Huckleberry Lewis had been one of the first Special Forces men to be permanently assigned to man the new Kontum FOB. Prior to Lewis’ arrival on the first of May 1966, Kontum had been staffed by temporary duty (TDY) soldiers on six-month assignment from the 1st Group on Okinawa. Many of these TDY troopers were still with Lewis, but their time was quickly drawing to a close. Lewis was a busy man. He found that Kontum’s largest structure was a small building with two rooms about ten feet square each. He set to work walling in two large corrugated sheet-metal sheds that had originally been motor pools to create a mess hall for the Nungs. His next step was to hastily construct a number of barracks to be used by the American recon teams. Newbies like Mo Worley went a long way in assisting Lewis with the labor.¹²

FOB-2 was under the command of Major Charlie Norton, a well-seasoned Korean War veteran who had enlisted in the Army in 1944. As one of the first men to join Special Forces, Norton deployed to Vietnam in 1965, where he literally helped write the book on SOG’s operational details. In addition to supervising the construction of improvements to the new Kontum compound, Norton was in charge of the equipping, training, briefing, deployment, and recovery of multiple recon teams—it was a tall order. He frequently flew with one or more forward air controller (FAC) reconnaissance flights, maintaining contact with deployed teams, often directing them to their exfiltration sites. During his early days of setting up FOB-2, he was assisted by Major Bobby Leites, another early SOG organizer.

Norton’s value to SOG operations was obvious to his superiors, who would soon recall him to Da Nang to serve as the base executive officer (XO) under Ray Call and later Colonel Bill Rose. As commander of FOB-2, his shoes would be filled by Lieutenant Colonel Call’s current XO, Major John Heuches Crerar. Being of Scottish ancestry, Crerar had picked up the nickname Scotty by age fourteen—a nickname that was even employed by his mother. Crerar went through SF training in the spring of 1965 and completed a six-month tour in Laos as an attaché working psyops (psychological operations) with other parties in-country. After a three-month rotation back in the States, he returned to Vietnam in 1966 and was processed through the 5th Group to SOG.¹³

Scotty Crerar’s first visit to Kontum came in early May, when he flew down to meet Charlie Norton at Dak To, the launch site Norton was running to deploy FOB-2 recon teams. The officers traveled down to Kontum, where Crerar spent the next two weeks shadowing the man he was to replace before Norton left to assume his new billet at SOG’s C&C headquarters and Major Leites was similarly reassigned.

Left to right: Major John Scotty Crerar, the base commander of FOB-2; Sergeant First Class Burrell Rat Wilson of Spike Team Texas; and Captain Frank Jaks, who arrived at Kontum in June 1966. Jason Hardy

Major Crerar found his first organizational duty at Kontum was to replace the TDY men with those assigned for full-year tours. He considered the initial logistics to be a disaster until he filtered out the remaining TDY soldiers for permanent subordinates. His only saving grace was an abundance of Vietnamese money, which he allowed his officers to use to buy and trade for the things they needed—mainly carbines and ammunition for the teams going into the field. Crerar’s outfit started out with poor logistics, expanding in personnel much faster than in anything else. Nine-millimeter ammunition—among the most common ammo in the world—was so scarce at FOB-2 that it had to be scraped together for teams going into the field with Swedish K submachine guns and semiautomatic pistols by taking it from the teams coming out of the field.

Major Crerar used Vietnamese money to acquire most of what he needed from the locals. He resorted to whatever measures were necessary to get things done. I even traded two pairs of jungle fatigues I had for a guy to build a defensive berm around the camp, he recalled. Crerar found his officer pool doubled with the arrival of Captain Fred Trzos, who became the base XO. Fred worked on building the camp at Kontum while I was trying to run the launch site at Dak To, said Crerar. We’d talk at night about what each of us had accomplished.

Several of the early noncommissioned officers would prove to be worth their weight in gold for Crerar and Trzos during the early days at Kontum. Among them were two master sergeants, Cole Eagle and Paul Darcy, who helped disseminate intelligence received from Saigon and prepare the teams as best they could for their missions. Crerar had no true intelligence officer for his base during its early months of operation. He similarly had no true medical division to care for anyone wounded in the field. The first two qualified medics to reach Kontum were a brace of staff sergeants, John McGirt and Don Fawcett. McGirt scrounged together what he could, Crerar said. The wily Green Beret horse-traded with other units, giving up yellow and black paint, cavalry insignia, and other desirables in exchange for basic medical equipment and supplies to stock Kontum.

The size of the small staff was of interest to Jack Singlaub when he made his first visit to the new FOB that summer. Chief SOG made a point of traveling to his forward operating bases with Bull Simons to meet his recon teams, debrief them after extractions, and absorb firsthand what weapons his Green Berets needed to better carry out their clandestine operations. At Kontum, Major Crerar walked along with SOG’s commander-in-chief pointing out the various structures his men had completed. Leading NCOs like Darcy and Eagle briefed Singlaub on other aspects of their daily operations. At one point, Singlaub nudged Crerar to the side.

Why are all these sergeants briefing me? he asked.

Because there are only two of us birds here, and the other one, Captain Trzos, is up running the operations at Dak To right now.¹⁴

Singlaub seemed genuinely shocked and also impressed that FOB-2 was being run by only two officers. The original thirty-three were literally moving mountains to ensure their base would soon be one that chief SOG would remember.

Scotty Crerar’s fledgling FOB-2 was one of three new SOG bases established during the summer of 1966. The original FOB-1 at Kham Duc was abandoned in favor of a new location in the northern region of South Vietnam at Phu Bai, originally commanded by Major James Vansickle. Major Fred Patton was dispatched to the Khe Sanh launch site with instructions to develop a new forward operating base at Khe Sanh that would become FOB-3. Base commanders Crerar, Vansickle, and Patton reported to C&C Da Nang chief Ray Call, who in turn reported to the Operation Shining Brass commander, Bull Simons, in Saigon and Chief SOG Jack Singlaub. Each of the three forward operating bases housed the Special Forces personnel separate from their nearby helicopter launch sites—from which the recon teams would be flown into their assigned target areas. Crerar’s Vietnamese adviser at Kontum was a Captain Tan, an old veteran of the Vietnamese airborne and the French war. We knew who they worked for and we assumed that everything they heard they were reporting, Crerar said of his local advisers. We were a little bit careful of what they did know.¹⁵

By early June, Major Crerar’s FOB-2 sported eight teams either in active operation in the field or in varying stages of training and preparation for active combat service. Each recon unit, or spike team (ST) consisted of two to three Americans—Special Forces Green Berets—with a small number of local tribesmen to fill out their ranks.

The initial SOG recon indigenous troops were all Nungs. During Vietnam’s French Indochina War, these Nungs had proven to be exceptional fighters who were very familiar with the local terrain. The South Vietnamese government, however, saw the Nungs as inferior and did not force them into the required draft for this war. SOG’s brass soon found plentiful recruits among the indigenous Nungs—who were only too happy to begin accepting U.S. recon work jobs with significantly higher pay than what was normally available to them. The lowest-ranking Nungs on a SOG team in 1966 were paid about sixty U.S. dollars, comparable to the monthly pay of a South Vietnamese captain.¹⁶

The early SOG teams thus operated with a mix of U.S. Special Forces troopers and Chinese Nungs. The new FOB-2 at Kontum was allotted 7 American officers and 70 enlisted men, plus 135 indigenous troops for its recon teams, although Crerar had nothing close to his 70 U.S. soldiers at the onset. Each of the eight Kontum spike teams was named after an American state: Colorado, Dakota (for both North Dakota and South Dakota), Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, and Texas.

The leader of each spike team was assigned the code number one-zero. The title of one-zero was prestigious within SOG, indicating a man who was respected by his leaders for possessing the fighting skills and sound judgment needed to keep his team alive when faced with numerically superior opponents in enemy territory. The Green Beret serving as the assistant team leader was given the code designation of one-one. Teams with a junior third American member (who often carried the team’s radio) labeled that Green Beret as their one-two.

Staff Sergeant Tom Livingston was one of the first of the new Kontum thirty-three to be pulled into a recon team. Fresh from his SOG orientation meeting, he reported in at the orderly room, an older building that had been standing since the French once occupied the compound. Livingston was told he would be the new radio-telephone operator (RTO), or commo man, for one-zero Jerry Howland’s ST Hawaii.

Master Sergeant Howland, thirty-four, and his one-one, Staff Sergeant Dave Fernea, were both veterans of the Korean War with extensive experience. Livingston found them both to be easy to get along with as he adapted to his new environment at FOB-2. The living quarters were cramped; the Green Berets all slept in one old barracks building partitioned off for the teams, with their Nung counterparts sleeping in separate areas of the same rickety French structures. Construction work was already under way to build proper barracks buildings with individual team hooches, but for the moment recon life was rather crude.

The American shitter got built rather quickly because the Nungs had a habit of squatting over the toilet, said Livingston. The foul remnants left by their Asian counterparts motivated the Green Berets to quickly build their own latrine for the sake of hygiene. Howland’s ST Hawaii had less construction detail, spending most of May training on mission and weapons procedures. Scarcity of ammunition forced Howland to train his Nungs on the Carl Gustav m/45 (better known as the Swedish K) submachine gun with very little live firing. Tom Livingston was eager for action. Two days into his training, he watched Master Sergeant Paul Snuffy Conroy’s ST Maine exiting one of the returning choppers and listened to details of the action they had seen across the fence.

Just weeks into team training, Livingston would get his own chance to encounter the enemy in Laos. Howland briefed the team to prepare their field gear for insertion from another forward operating base, and ST Hawaii was flown by military transport to the new base at Phu Bai. There, Livingston found choppers waiting to whisk them away yet again to FOB-3 at Khe Sanh, from which they would stage their insertion.

Major Scotty Crerar normally had his spike teams flown by chopper up to Dak To, about thirty miles away, each morning to be ready to launch from the airfield. From Dak To, the spike teams could be inserted into the tri-border region of Cambodia, Laos, and North Vietnam. Most nights, the teams not inserted would be flown back to the Kontum base, leaving only Nung company guards and radio operators to run the Dak To launch site station through the nights. During the early days of FOB-2, many of the teams were inserted by twin-rotor U.S. Marine CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters, which were particularly noisy. Not only did this tip off the enemy of their approach, it also left the Green Berets and their indigenous cohorts virtually deaf during their first crucial moments on what might well be a hot LZ (landing zone).¹⁷

Major Crerar also enlisted the services of Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) pilots of the Da Nang–based 219th Helicopter Squadron. This unit was sent to operate from Kontum and flew old Sikorsky CH-34 Choctaw helicopters, nicknamed Kingbees. The Kingbees had old radial, nine-cylinder Wright Aeronautical Corporation Cyclone R-1820 engines used in the legendary World War II B-17 aircraft—that often leaked hydraulic fluid. They were larger choppers than the U.S. Army’s UH-1 Hueys, allowing them to carry more men and absorb more ground fire hits than the Hueys. Personnel exited and entered a CH-34 through one side door and the chopper was equipped with only one door gunner who was often armed with an older .30-caliber machine gun for defense. The pilots of the 219th were particularly gutsy. On occasion, they flew when an American pilot would not, Crerar said. If a team was in trouble, they would go.

Many of the 219th’s fearless pilots were college-educated men who were paid five hundred Vietnam piasters for every twelve hours or more away from their home station and an additional three thousand Vietnam piasters every time they crossed the border into North Vietnam—roughly twenty-five dollars U.S. for each insertion and extraction. These South Vietnamese pilots were highly respected for their can-do attitude when it came to extracting U.S. Special Forces personnel from the jungle under heavy fire. Two of the plucky 219th chopper pilots flying

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